All Ball Sports: Lakers face a do-or-don’t-die game, Mira Costa Mustangs stumble

Redondo’s Carly Koltko has helped her team go 6-0 in league play,. Photo by Ray Vidal

 

by Paul Teetor           

When the NBA announced its new play-in format the intent was obvious: to sustain interest in the league’s lesser teams through the end of the regular season. Teams that would normally be out of the playoff race would still have a shot at the playoffs. 

But by forcing the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th place teams to battle it out in a play-in tournament for the 7th and 8th seeds in the playoffs, the NBA has ended up with a nightmare scenario. The league’s most transcendent star, the Lakers’ LeBron James, and the best shooter in NBA history, the Warriors’ Steph Curry, will now have to play each other Wednesday night in a game that will be watched with intense interest from coast-to-coast.

The winner of that game, which will be played at Staples Center because the Lakers finished 7th in the Western Division while the Warriors finished 8th, will then advance to become the 7th seed in the West for the real playoffs.

The loser between the Lakers and Warriors, however, will then be facing a do-or-die game against the winner of the game between the 9th and 10th place teams, the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs. The winner of that game will advance to become the 8th seed in the real playoffs, while the loser goes home.

In other words, if the Lakers lose just their first two games, they are out of the playoffs and done for the season without ever getting into the real playoffs, where each series is a best out of seven games and they would have a chance to regain their rhythm and cohesion after LeBron and Anthony Davis missed most of the last two months.

So much for defending their NBA title.

As unlikely as it seems, the two-losses-and-done scenario for the Lakers is at least a theoretical possibility. The first game in particular is very dangerous for the Lakers. Curry has been the hottest player in the league for the last six weeks, putting on a last-minute scoring binge that made him the league scoring champ with an average of more than 31 points per game.

Beyond that, they still have power forward Draymond Green, who is no longer a superstar, but was part of three championship teams and knows how to win big games. And he’s one of the very few players in the league who is big, strong and quick enough to guard LeBron, even when LeBron is determined to overpower anyone in his path – as he will surely be for this game.

And the Warriors, who finished with the worst record in the league last season after Curry’s back court side-kick, super-shooter Klay Thompson, went down with a horrific leg injury, are just thrilled to be back in the postseason fun. They will enter the game with nothing to lose, playing with house money. The Lakers, on the other hand, will be under intense pressure to avoid a do-or-die game against the winner of Memphis/San Antonio.

And don’t sleep on the Grizzlies or the Spurs. The Grizzlies have the best young point guard in the league in Ja Morant, and he’s surrounded by up-and-coming talent like Jaren Jackson, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke.

The Spurs, meanwhile, have the best coach in the league in Greg Popovich and a whole stable of young and talented players, like Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson, eager to make a name for themselves by knocking either the Lakers or Warriors out of the postseason with just one great game.

In a league where every team is capable of beating any other team on a given night, anything can happen in a one-game playoff.

But here’s the reality: the Lakers, who won their last five games, should, and probably will, beat the Warriors to advance and face the second-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round of the real playoffs. Indeed, with LeBron and Anthony Davis both back and healthy – and rested after missing so many games – they project as the most dangerous 7th seed in the history of the NBA playoffs.

Which brings us to the Clippers.          

LA’s other team disgraced itself by tanking in its last two games – against the two worst teams in the league in Houston and Oklahoma City – all in a frantic effort to avoid having to play the Lakers until the Western Conference Finals, should they both get that far. There was a very real chance the Lakers and Clippers would have to play in the first round if the Clippers were second seeded, but the Clippers made sure that didn’t happen.

The league has rarely seen such blatant tanking: Clippers Coach Ty Lue had to go deep into his bench to make sure his team lost to the Rockets and the Thunder. It took a huge effort because both of those teams – long out of playoff contention — were tanking as hard as they could to get the highest possible draft pick in next month’s NBA draft. OKC had exactly one win in the last two months before beating the Clippers.

When both teams are trying to lose, it makes for some truly ugly basketball, but the Clippers managed to win the race to the bottom and end up with the fourth seed in the Western Division. That means they will once again have to face the Dallas Mavericks and their superstar, Luka Doncic, in the first round.

The Clippers prevailed over the Mavericks in the first-round last season, but the series was oh-so-close and could have easily gone the other way.

Doncic is as clutch as anyone in the league, but so is Kawhi Leonard for the Clippers. That means it will probably come down to the two secondary stars: Paul George for the Clippers and Kristaps Porzingis for the Mavericks. George has been on a redemption tour all year for the Clippers and has played like the superstar he used to be before he choked so badly in last season’s playoffs that he became a league-wide joke.

But all his heroics this season won’t matter at all if he can’t duplicate them in the playoffs, starting with beating the Mavericks.

Predictions: the Lakers will beat the Warriors for the 7th seed behind a supreme effort by LeBron and advance to the first round. They will then “upset” the second-seeded Suns, 4 games to 2, to advance to the Western Division semifinals. The Clippers will beat the Mavericks 4 games to 3 and advance to the second round. Both LA teams will win their second round series, and finally we will have the long-awaited, much anticipated Hallway Series between the two Staples Center co-tenants.  

But if the Lakers lose their first two games and don’t even make the playoffs, look for LeBron’s comment on the new play-in format to come true: “Whoever came up with this sh..t needs to be fired.”        

Mira Costa’s Heather Roth. The Mustangs shut out Peninsula 10-0 on Friday. Photo by Ray Vidal

Mustangs: The week that wasn’t

The Mira Costa boys basketball team, fresh off a heart-breaking 2-point loss to first place Culver City last week, entered this week with a chance to nail down second place in the Bay League and set themselves up for a nice long playoff run.

With a home game Tuesday against Peninsula and another home game Friday night against Palos Verdes, everything was lined up for the young and talented squad.                                     

Problem was, Peninsula cooperated, but PV didn’t.

And at first it looked like even Peninsula hadn’t gotten the memo before showing up at Fisher Gym. They raced out to an 11-4 lead that was cut to 13-7 at the end of the first quarter. For a team like Costa, which  specializes in low-scoring, defensive struggles, a 6-point deficit after one quarter was daunting.

Sophomore star Will Householter led a second-quarter comeback that tied the game at 17-17, but Peninsula refused to fold and surged to a 25-19 halftime lead.

A stunned home crowd watched nervously as Peninsula maintained its lead at 31-25 late in the third quarter. But Cole Slusser hit a baseline drive, point guard Christian Huang drilled a 3-pointer to draw within 31-30, and Householter closed out the quarter with a get-out-of-my-way drive as Costa grabbed its first lead, 32-31, to end the third quarter.

With order restored, Costa poured it on in the fourth quarter until it had a safe lead at 43-34 with just a couple of minutes left. At the final buzzer Costa had a desperately needed bounce-back win at 49-39. Next up: PV, which was tied for second in the Bay League with Costa after narrowly defeating the Mustangs at their place earlier in the season.

But Friday night’s game turned into a horror show as the Mustangs again let PV race out to a substantial lead at 23-14 late in the first half. Householter hit two free throws, forward Jesse Waller hit two more, and when Huang found a cutting Slusser for an easy layup the Mustangs had pulled within 25-20 at halftime.

This time Slusser led a frenzied comeback with a couple of layups and four foul shots to draw even at 34-34. They led 38-36 at the end of the third quarter, and when Slusser scored again on a power drive to grab a 40-36 lead to start the fourth quarter the home crowd was smiling and cheering the inevitable victory.

Then the Mustang’s season-long weakness emerged yet again: PV started to dominate the boards,

pulling down offensive rebound after offensive rebound until they could finally hit a third-or-fourth-chance shot.

“Right there is where the game got away from us, in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter,” said Mustang Head Coach Neal Perlmutter. “PV was the tougher team, and the tougher team usually wins in the Bay League.”

PV grabbed the lead back at 41-40 and Perlmutter called timeout, but Costa could not get the momentum back that they had worked so hard for. PV started nailing wide-open 3-pointers from both corners, and before the horrified crowd could grasp what was happening their lead grew to 54-44 and it was clear this was not going to be the Mustangs night.

The disheartening loss – final score 60-48 — left the Mustangs at 7-7 overall and 4-4 in the Bay League. If they win out against Santa Monica Monday night and Redondo Wednesday night, they will have a good shot at second place in the league. But their long-held dream of repeating as Bay League champions is gonzo for this season.

Next season, however, projects a return to Bay League glory.

“Most of our starters and rotation guys are sophomores and juniors, and our junior varsity is undefeated in league, so we hope and expect to have a very strong team next year,” Perlmutter said. “My goal when I came to Costa was to rebuild the program for the long haul, and I feel like we’re on track to do that.”

Indeed, you could make a case that Perlmutter made life harder for himself by unexpectedly winning a Bay League title in only his second year — and in the process ending arch-rival Redondo’s eight-year stranglehold on the league championship. 

That shocking title raised expectations that he is a miracle worker who can do it every year. In reality he is just a hard-working, intensely focused coach intent on building a player pipeline that will make the Mustangs league contenders every year – a reasonable goal given Costa’s annual elite status in so many other sports, from volleyball to football to tennis to water polo.

As for this year, the Mustangs are now 7-7 overall and 4-4 in the Bay League. if they win out – beating Santa Monica on the road Monday night, and Redondo on the road Wednesday night – they will still have had a respectable season. “If we win out, we have a good chance to finish second in the league,” Perlmutter said.

Meanwhile, the girls team had a similar week but in reverse – they lost to Peninsula but beat PV. 

They started the week by losing to Peninsula by 5 points.

“Peninsula played really well, and we made some mistakes down the stretch,” girls coach John Lapham said. ‘Our kids played hard, but we missed some makeable shots at the end of the game. Peninsula made some big-time plays and deserved to win.”

After they went on to easily beat PV by 16 points, the girls are now 11-5 overall and 6-2 in the Bay League. If they can beat Santa Monica Monday night they will have a chance to share the league title if they can find a way to beat league leader Redondo (7-1) Wednesday night.

Lapham said that regardless of the Redondo game, the Mustangs are assured of a playoff spot and will probably open with a home game. Playoff pairings will be announced Sunday. The Mustangs are currently ranked seventh in Division 2AA.        

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor

 

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Written by: Kevin Cody

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